Burning the forest

A DigitalNZ Story by DigitalNZ

Burning the forest was the first step in converting most of the North Island hill country into farms. This 30,000 acre fire was lit to clear the land of bush on Puketora Station, 20 km NW of Tokomaru Bay in the East Coast region.

These resources and text relate to the burning of New Zealand forests and the wider context why deforestation was carried out and its impact. They have been sourced and collated from DigitalNZ and other websites.

Burning the bush

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage


From the early 19th century, European settlers felled the trees for timber. They also cleared the land for farming, by logging trees and setting fire to the understorey. They sowed English grasses on the forest ash deposits, which provided an initial source of nutrients.  North Island farmers used fire to turn the forest and fernlands into grazing land for sheep and cattle.
In winter they cut down the forest’s lower creepers and shrubs. 

Then they cut down the trees. 

After drying out over summer, the plants were set alight. Later, farmers sowed grass seed on the ash.
In autumn, farmers burned the fern and sowed grass and clover seed. Sheep or cattle ate the grass, and any ferns that grew back.

Source:  Robert Peden, 'Fire and agriculture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/fire-and-agriculture (accessed 1 August 2018) 

Burning, Pukatore Station

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage


When Maori and European settlers arrived found a land covered in forest. Both were responsible for the burning of vast quantities of New Zealand bush. 
Māori arrived in New Zealand around 1250–1300 AD. They found a land that was heavily forested, apart from the semi-arid regions of Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country, in the South Island. It is likely that hunters deliberately set fire to the bush to flush out game birds such as moa, and to make hunting easier. The fires caused widespread deforestation in the South Island east of the main dividing range, and also in large parts of the eastern North Island. It is almost certain that at times the fires got out of control, and some of the burnoff would have been accidental.

Source:  Robert Peden, 'Fire and agriculture - Fire and Māori agriculture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/fire-and-agriculture/page-1 (accessed 1 August 2018) 

The European settlers and their descendants saw forests as both an obstacle to agriculture and an inexhaustible source of timber. Burning was the prime means of forest clearance, accounting for probably 90 percent of New Zealand's deforestation.
In a single intensive decade, from 1890 to 1900, 27 percent of New Zealand's existing forest (or 13 percent of the total land area) was cleared. The deforestation rate during this period was four times the recent rate in tropical Asian rainforests. The number of farms rose quickly from around 10,000 in 1871 to more than 80,000 in 1921.  

Source: Ministry for the Environment http://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/environmental-reporting/state-new-zealand%E2%80%99s-environment-1997-chapter-eight-state-our-2   (accessed 1 August 2018)  

Quick facts  

  • New Zealand’s pre-human landscape was 85% forest, with the remaining 15 % in alpine meadow, tussock grassland and other vegetation types.
  • Burning became a traditional practice for pre-European Māori. The staple vegetable was aruhe (fern root), and the fernlands were maintained by regular burning. 
  • Some environmental historians say that the transformation of the New Zealand landscape from forest and swamp to pasture was the fastest in human history.
  • During a widespread drought in the summer of 1885–86, houses, businesses, farms and thousands of acres of bush in southern Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki were destroyed by bushfires.
  • The first New Zealand Arbor Day activity was in Greytown borough in 1890. Twelve 12 trees of 150 first planted beside the Wairarapa highway still survive.
  •  In Māori legend, the fires of Tamatea referred to the burning of large areas of the forest on the South Island’s east coast.

Other resources

Corriedale sheep monument —  a sheep memorial near Windsor in north Otago.

Dairy trade’s economic contribution to New Zealand — dairy remains New Zealand's largest goods export sector. 

Extinct birds of New Zealand — since human arrival in Aotearoa/New Zealand many of our native birds have become extinct. 

Fires and gales— Raetihi township was once devastated by bushfires.  

Map of NZ forest destruction— before humans arrived most of New Zealand was covered in forest.

Project Crimson — Project Crimson supports NZ groups and individuals through conservation projects involving eco-sourced pohutukawa and northern or southern rata trees.

Research breakthrough to boost native forestry — a scientific breakthrough could replenish vast expanses of our countryside with lush native forest. 

Sheep— a history of sheep in New Zealand.

Fertile questions 

Why have humans turned forests into farms? 

How are values and beliefs reflected in physical environments? 

Is a farm a ‘better’ use of land than a forest? 

Me tiaki pēhea nei te mauri? 

What is your fertile question?

‘The burning region’

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Landslides in cleared country

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Farm forestry

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage